My 5 Favorite Class Discussion Strategies

Sep 22, 2022

When I was a brand new teacher I thought my primary role was to present information to students in the most engaging way possible with the hopes that my delivery would help them remember everything I was teaching. I was the sage on the stage; they were my audience. Obviously I had a lot to learn about giving a strong lecture, but the students seemed engaged and I thought my teaching was effective. However, when they’d take the assessment at the end of the unit, it quickly became apparent that there is a difference between listening and comprehending. Their scores were low and only a small fraction of my students had remembered everything that was taught. You can imagine the anxiety this creates for a first-year teacher.

My mentor teacher asked me what I was doing to help them process information besides note-taking. I didn’t really know what she meant, so she explained that a key part of learning is helping students work through new information and ideas in more ways than one. She suggested taking breaks during my direct instruction for students to discuss. The first time I tried this, I was met with silence, crickets. Students awkwardly looked at each other and I stood at the front of the room like a deflated balloon. Only one student raised their hand to speak, and it became clear that this type of class discussion was not going to get them talking about and processing the lesson. This started my journey of discovering discussion strategies that would loosen my students up and get them to have strong academic discussions. Here are some of my favorite strategies that I’ve used ever since. 

Write, Pair, Share

One of the problems with leading a full-class discussion is that students are having to process and share information with everyone else on the spot. This requires immense vulnerability, and many students are not willing to go there, hence the crickets. With Write, Pair, Share, students first process by themselves, writing down key ideas that they will then discuss. After a minute or two of writing, students find a partner and share the thoughts they just wrote. The short bit of writing helps students do two important things: First, they are processing the information in a kinesthetic form, transferring their thoughts to words. This deepens the learning even before discussion. The writing also gives them a road map for the following discussion, which builds confidence for sharing their thinking with someone else. This confidence almost always leads to better discussion verses jumping right into the pairing and sharing.

Numbered Heads

This strategy developed by Kagan and Kagan is an accountability measure that can be added to Write, Pair, Share. Before discussion begins, number students off. Tell them that following Write, Pair, Share, you will draw a random number, and the person with that number will share what their group talked about with the entire class. Not only does this allow the rest of the class to hear the perspectives of other classmates who they did not directly discuss with, it also helps ensure discussions are happening because students know there is a chance they will be called on. And lucky for the student who is called upon, at that point they have already listened to the direct instruction, wrote and processed it, and discussed it with someone else. Sharing with the class is now much easier than just sharing with no preparation. 

Music Mixer

This discussion strategy is about adding a fun element to discussion. After giving a discussion prompt, play music and tell students to move and dance around the classroom. When the music stops, they will discuss the prompt with whoever they are closest to. The fun and physical element to this helps students let their guards down, which leads to better interactions with whoever they discuss with. It’s also an opportunity for students to discuss and share with new people. The Music Mixer is great for the beginning of the year when students are getting to know each other, but also anytime your students need to move around and have fun. 

4 Chair Fishbowl

The 4 Chair Fishbowl is a fast-paced strategy designed to facilitate large group discussion and allow participants to share and listen to each other’s points of view. It’s especially helpful for conflict resolution or to discuss a controversial topic, but can really be used for any discussion topic.

To hold a 4 Chair Fishbowl, place 2-4 chairs in the middle of your classroom and have the entire class form a circle around them. The class will have a discussion, but students can only speak if they are sitting in one of the four chairs in the middle. Everyone outside of the chairs must listen. If a student wants to join the discussion, they can tap a student’s shoulder sitting in a chair, and as soon as that student is finished speaking, they must vacate the chair and let in the newcomer. The discussion continues, but its participants are constantly being refreshed.

Therefore, the discussion is really not about those sitting in the chairs, but for the entire group involved. The room is silent except for the students in the middle of the circle, and the discussion can move with the rhythm of students revolving in and out. 

Harkness Discussion

Developed by the Exeter Academy, this discussion strategy is all about student ownership. The teacher acts as an observer while students lead the entire discussion. Prior to the discussion, instruct students to develop questions related to the material they are learning. After they’ve prepared, have them sit in a circle. Inform them that they are required to ask and respond to at least one question during the whole-group discussion. When students are new to this, the discussion can be a little slow to get going. To help get the discussion moving, you can assign students certain roles that promote participation. Roles can include: 

  • The first speaker initiates a discussion by asking the first question
  • The timekeeper monitors how much time the group has left.
  • A facilitator helps discussion, periodically summarizes, and synthesizes main ideas at the end.
  • An Alternative Advocate raises alternative perspectives to consider.
  • An equity monitor encourages all members to share their ideas.
  • A scribe tracks and records ideas.

Another way to get students talking during Harkness is to create a talking diagram while they are discussing. Draw a circle and label students around it. When one student speaks, draw a line to them on the circle. When someone responds, draw a line to that student. This way you can track how often students share and don’t share.

It becomes valuable data that you can share with individual students as encouragement when they are making regular, meaningful contributions, and also to incline students who are not contributing to share more.  

Developing a ‘discussion culture’ takes time. 

Discussion is a skill, and skills are like muscles: the more they are exercised, the stronger they become. When employing these strategies for the first time, don’t be surprised if the outcome is less than you hoped. The skill may be atrophied. Students need to become comfortable processing and sharing with others, and this takes time and practice. However, once they learn they are capable of sharing their thoughts and ideas, and have regular opportunities to do so, they will learn the content of your class in a deeper way, and possess a skill they will use the rest of their lives.

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